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In Miami, where the mantra seems to be “bigger is better,” local firm Brillhart Architecture has quietly and gracefully gone against the grain, producing work that is sensitive to its environment, thoughtful to its historic context, and creative in its use of material and composition. If there is a thread connecting each project, architect Melissa Brillhart says it’s an “immediate connection to landscape and the desire to be light on the land.”
Jacob Brillhart founded the firm in 2005, and is a full-time assistant professor at the University of Miami School of Architecture. His wife Melissa joined the practice about three years ago after working for several design studios and a real estate development firm. Together, with one other full-time employee and three interns, they run a lean and industrious practice, taking on a variety of projects, from commercial and residential commissions to design-build competitions to exhibitions and furniture design.
Much of the firm’s work is located in the Miami area, and the husband-and-wife team has cultivated an approach that is responsive to the city’s climate, landscape, and architectural legacy. Their projects often weave together different building typologies and styles, such as tropical modern designs from the 1950s and ‘60s, with the latest technology. “We rely on interpretations of vernacular principles that have embedded environmental considerations,” said Melissa.
For Brillhart, sustainability is more than just employing systems. It is about “this direct relationship to the landscape.” While designing in a coastal metropolis can pose unique challenges, Brillhart’s architecture seeks to integrate these conditions organically into their designs—facing them not as obstacles, but as the given realities from which opportunity springs.
“Whether the water is going to rise or not, the architecture, we hope, sort of senses that and is aware of climate change, but we wouldn’t say it is a direct reaction to it,” added Jacob. “In a sense we want to just be laying gently.”
In designing their own home, Melissa and Jacob Brillhart looked to the dogtrot house, a popular style of the Florida Cracker vernacular, which is characterized by a breezeway through the center. While they ended up enclosing the passageway to gain more square footage, they used a dogtrot diagram as the basic configuration. Melding the American glass pavilion typology with tropical modern design, the structure is made predominantly of glass and steel. The 1,500-square-foot house, which is lifted five feet off the ground and features 100 feet of continuous glass spanning the front and the back, is in concert with the outdoors and offers views of the lush landscape and catching the southeast winds through four sets of sliding glass doors and porches. Wood shutters along the front facade provide privacy as well as a striking visual effect, casting a pattern of crisscrossing shadows at certain times of the day.
Riffing on the tropical modern vernacular, Brillhart Architecture renovated a 1948 case study house by architect Trip Russell, and designed a 2,850-square-foot addition. Located in the city’s coveted Coconut Grove, the original 1,100-square-foot house is quickly becoming an anomaly in a neighborhood where small houses are frequently being replaced by larger, flashier homes. This renovation and expansion enables the client to “extend [the house’s] life,” said Melissa, by “bringing it up to today’s building codes and then also bringing an addition that would be in keeping with the original design of the house.” Taking advantage of the surrounding flora, the firm built around a beautiful old grove tree canopy. The new two-story wing is composed of glass and steel and is designed to “complement the existing structure.” Even though the house wasn’t historically designated, the Brillharts followed some of the historic preservation guidelines so to “maintain the original character of the house.”
Designed specially for a client who is an enthusiast of contemporary architecture, this low-slung, courtyard-style home resolves a common quandary: how to enjoy views of one’s own home while inside. Instead of gazing upon the neighbor’s home, the one-story house features a glass facade and is configured in an L-shape to allow the client to glimpse the architecture of his own residence from different rooms or vantage points. With the help of landscape architects, the house sits nestled in a tropical forest, providing additional privacy.
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) PS1, Long Island City, New York
MoMA PS1 selected Drones’ Beach as a finalist in its annual Young Architects Program. Instead of proposing an object in the space, the firm sought to create a multisensory experience by transforming the museum’s 11,000-square-foot courtyard into a beach-like environment. To achieve this, wooden ribs increase the height of existing concrete walls, calling to mind a vessel, while the ground is filled with white marble chips that are dyed pink to resemble sand. The extended, undulating walls are lined with photographer Richard Misrach’s photographs of swimmers in Hawaiian waters to create “a sense of being enveloped in a water womb,” explained Jacob. Additional special effects—including misting devices, associative smells (such as saltwater or a campfire), and four aluminum “nest-infested” palm trees—further enhance the immersive beach experience. Camera equipped drones fly above, landing on the nest-infested palms, capturing PS1’s Warm Up from above, and posting images to Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms.